Sunday, November 6, 2011

Aim High By Aiming Low

I recently had a conversation with Peter, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan”.  I met him and a few others of his group at the “Everyone Everywhere Mission Conference” held at the YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, Colorado last month.

Aware of some of the real distresses and imminent dangers that his group, the so-called “Lost Boys of Sudan” had gone through, I asked Peter if he could share to me his story and how he ended up here in the United States and eventually at the Mission Conference.

Peter obliged and he began by saying that he thought he was probably 5 years old, or that someone must have told him that he was 5, and he was one of the thousands of young boys who were let go by their families in the hope that they’ll survive the killings and other horrendous atrocities of the conflicted parties in the southern part of Sudan.

He still remembers how death was their constant companion; taking hundreds if not thousands on their way to what they were told a “better life”. He did not give me graphic descriptions of their experience and yet was able to impress upon me the seriousness and severity of their travels, constantly being exposed to heat and fatigue; the absence of food and water and the attacks of wild animals.

His group had their first taste of their version of “Promised Land” in a Refugee Camp in the neighboring country of Ethiopia but it was short-lived.  His group, or what was left of them, eventually ended up in the Refugee Camps in Kakuma, Kenya where they saw the dawn of a relatively better future. Through the benevolence of refugee groups, both from the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations, those boys were restored to a life of dignity and found a new family of their own.

Peter was one of the lucky ones who were brought to the US and he was one of the recipients of the help extended through ERD or the Episcopal Relief and Development of The Episcopal Church. That tie would explain how he was able to attend the conference in Estes Park, Colorado.

Towards the end of our conversation, Peter looked me straight in the eye and told me that what kept them going was the lesson they learned from their elders: “to aim high; dream big and pursue that dream.” 

I was touched by that remark not so much that at five years of age he had it already etched in him but more of the fact that his group, his wider community, shared that same vision of aiming high and pursuing lofty dreams. At first, I thought it was more than likely just the need to survive that kept them going but in hindsight, I thought it was indeed their “aiming high and dreaming and pursuing big dreams” that brought them to where they are today.

The group that was with us in Colorado displayed an image reflective of their having reaped the fruits of their dream and I’m truly happy that they and others have seen the dawn of a better tomorrow, by their “aiming high; dreaming and pursuing their big dream”.

Often in life, it’s important to aim high. There is something about those who lived a life similar to the ones lived by the “Lost Boys” that breeds and feeds the importance of aiming high in life. And while the need to “aim high” is often attributed mainly to the ones who don’t have the comforts in life, as we in the West know them to be, such, however, is only half true. The other half tells us that it’s not only the poor who dream dreams, lofty or otherwise. The sad thing is that there are those who already have the luxuries in life and yet continue to aim even higher, dream even bigger dreams and pursue them relentlessly, often at the expense of other people.

If we take a closer look at how life in the more affluent countries like America gets lived out, we would surely see good examples of this. We live in an economic system that promotes competition.  For example, it is often the case that our mentors start us young by telling us that those who do excel in school tend to get the “best” jobs. So what do we do? Right. We “aim high; dream big and pursue our dream”.

Another example could be that out there among the labor force, again, we are told that those who work the hardest at their jobs are much more likely to get promotions and advance in their chosen career. They would be the ones who would climb their career ladder much faster compared to those who merely “do a job”. So what do we do? Right. We “aim high; dream big and pursue our dream”.

I’m sure you know other people who pursued lofty goals and accomplished great things in life. Yes, many of us here and in other countries too, seem to be almost hard-wired to aim high in life, hoping to get a bigger slice of the proverbial pie.

Today, we gather to celebrate a different breed of “high aimers” and “big dreamers”.  Yes, they’re the ones who “aim high and dream big dreams and pursue those big dreams” but in a different plane. They are called saints and today we celebrate this special day of remembrance in their honor.

It should not come as a surprise that the saints aimed high in matters of faith in a much different way than we do in many areas of our lives.  Their “aiming high” was not for their own gain or their own advancement in a world of material things. Their “aiming high” secured them little in this field but would have demanded more from them instead. Their “aiming high” was probably seen by some as unbecoming of citizens of a society that values wealth and prosperity, yet they forged on with their eyes focused in their singular vision.

The saints – the countless men and women who have gone before us to that “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns”; and who now have a place at the heavenly banquet – aimed high by aiming low.

Yes, you heard me right. The saints aimed high precisely by aiming low; no matter how diametrically opposing that may look.  Their “aiming low” manifested itself in their lives in ways reflected in the Beatitudes we just heard proclaimed in today’s Gospel.

First, the saints were able to embrace their own “lowliness”, embracing the very spirit of the words Jesus spoke.  They knew the importance of being poor in spirit, meek, merciful, peacemakers and clean of heart.  They were able to refuse the beckoning of self-indulgence, self-centeredness and self-glorification. Instead, they knew how and where they were grounded in this world in relation to God – they stand firm in a place of complete dependence, hope and trust.    

Secondly, the saints understood the importance of “aiming low” by having a special place in their hearts for the “least” among us, for those who are marginalized in society: the poor, the forgotten, the neglected, the outcast and the outsider. These “least” among us had a special place in the hearts of the saints having realized that the “least” had the same special place in the heart of Jesus. The saints were in a very real sense able to resist the temptation to turn towards vicious allurements and licentious habits, and instead were able to direct the love and blessings they had received from God toward others, toward those who needed them the most.

Today we gather as a faith community and as disciples on a mission, to remember the giants of the faith; men and women who understood the value of aiming high, not in improving their material comforts in life but in matters of faith. We lift up those men and women who lived life intently focused on where they wanted to go, how they wanted to live and most importantly, whom they wanted to serve.

We also gather today not only to remember them but also to give thanks to God for them, to ask for their prayers, and to look at the deeds they have shown in their lives, some great while others simple, that we may learn and emulate them in the best way we can. 
It is not uncommon to have baptisms done when we celebrate All Saints’ Day and when we do, as we have done in the past, we are afforded the opportunity to express our intention to persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever we fall into sin, to repent and return to the Lord. It’s also that time when get the opportunity to affirm our willingness to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ and to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. It’s also our chance to signify our intention to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

On those occasions when we, as a faith community, join each other in re-affirming our baptismal covenant, we also remind ourselves of our calling to become the saints that we can be. Striving to be a saint is the call of each of us.  And the process really hasn’t changed much in all those years.  It’s still about pouring out our lives in service of others, for the forgotten ones in our midst – by remembering them, befriending them, comforting them and providing for them. 

It may seem completely out of reach and unrealistic for most of us.  It may seem nearly impossible, given our own faults and weaknesses and it surely looks like a tall order. It is for this reason that we often retreat back to our cocoon of indifference: “I’m more of a sinner than a saint.”

Yet, that should not dampen our spirit to live the calling we could do, loving our neighbor and those who might have distanced themselves from us.  Just like in the case of my friend Peter, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan”, the dangers that may come our way as we continue to walk our faith journey could look so gravely insurmountable. But just like him, so we should never be afraid to aim high, for that is our calling: “to aim high by aiming low”.

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